Existing rules for fed records apply to e-mail
- By Kevin Powers
- Sep 04, 1995
The new rule on preserving e-mail as a federal record is pretty
simple: Use the same guidelines you would follow for any other document.
That's the bottom line for the National Archives and Records Administration's new
e-mail records rule. What it means is that users will be the government's primary
electronic records-makers and managers.
"The responsibility lies with the creator of the record, just as with paper,"
National Archivist John W. Carlin said. "We do not have a huge police force to
monitor applications. Agencies have the responsibility for oversight."
NARA officials unveiled their final regulations for managing government e-mail records
at a briefing in Washington late last month. Carlin said the same basic rules governing
the creation, preservation and disposal of paper documents will apply to agency e-mail
Carlin said it will be up to agency officials to determine how best to tailor their
e-mail systems and train their employees to ensure compliance with the new regulations.
NARA does plan to work with the government's Electronic Records Working Group, an
interagency team, to develop functional requirements for electronic record-keeping
systems, Carlin said.
Jack Finley, program manager of the government's Electronic Messaging Program
Management Office, said the record-keeping rules will help his group develop functional
requirements for a governmentwide e-mail system.
"We've always worked closely with NARA, and this gives us greater flexibility in
drafting and meeting requirements," he said. "There also has to be an
educational process for the individual e-mail user. Technology has brought about a
paradigm shift where users now have more powerful tools and need to understand their
The new rule also seemed to satisfy some agency records managers who were seeking a
foundation for their own e-mail records policies.
"Now we can go and talk to our e-mail people and say here are the requirements
from the record-keeping standpoint," said Michael Miller, the Environmental
Protection Agency's national program manager for records management, who attended NARA's
"The future questions are: how do we separate records from non-records? And how do
we store e-mail for destruction later or pull together e-mail on the same subject?"
NARA officials had been fine-tuning the regulations ever since issuing their draft rule
in March 1994.
Besides the government's effort to build an e-mail infrastructure, the need for a
comprehensive electronic records policy was made even more urgent by the recent federal
court decision declaring that e-mail messages are subject to the Federal Records Act
Yet many agencies complained that NARA's initial proposal was too expensive and
burdensome because it required them to maintain e-mail records in digital form. Agencies
said they had neither the technical capability nor the money to upgrade or replace their
Carlin said the new rules do not mandate any electronic record-keeping requirements and
allow agencies to continue storing their records in other media formats, even paper. NARA
said it will update its Managing Electronic Records handbook to reflect the new
regulations and prepare agencies for future e-mail systems developments, he said.
Agencies also called for NARA to provide more guidance on separating record and
non-record e-mail and the use of backup tapes. Carlin said NARA would continue to specify
its policies to help agencies meet their record-keeping needs.
What media to use for storing records--whether they are e-mail or other federal
documents--remains a perplexing problem, said James J. Hastings, director of NARA's
Records Appraisal and Disposition Division.
"We do not intend to become a museum for obsolete hardware and software,"
Hastings said. "Most records are not permanent records. But we're working on this
because it's a very difficult problem."
Under NARA's regulation, electronic records means numeric, graphic and text information
recorded on any medium and capable of being read by a computer.
The rule applies to "all electronic information systems," including
microcomputers, minicomputers and mainframes, regardless of storage media, in network or
Agencies are responsible for training their e-mail systems users on such record-keeping
requirements as what constitutes a federal record, the procedures for designating federal
records and moving and copying records for storage.
NARA will host public meetings on Sept. 13 at its facility in College Park, Md., and
Sept. 14 in its Washington offices to review the new rules.
NARA has posted the new rule on Internet gopher at GOPHER.NARA.GOV.